In hard secular times we imagine that the people of God will nobly knuckle down and stand firm in the face of the Sexular Culture, the post-Christian social experiments that continue to defy physio-logic, and progressive officialdom’s push to purge the public square of any Christian voice that does not play the “renaming” game.
In other words, we hope that Christians will step up and embrace what it means to be a creative minority in a hostile world, and prepare to pay the cost of saying “No” to the progressive Left agenda, as well as “No” to the conservative Right agenda which is beguiling all too many of us with Christendom without Christ.
But the Old Testament minor prophet, Haggai, presents an alternative to such noble sentiment. I’m reading through the minor prophets during my holiday break, and Haggai has long been a favourite of mine.
And in these straitened times Haggai is more prescient than ever. For Haggai reveals that the biggest temptation for us will be to quietly fold our wings, shrug our shoulders, and get on with making life as comfortable as possible for ourselves, while the world above and around tears itself apart.
The apocalypse is coming; either the Beautiful Apocalypse of rainbow and glitter, or the nasty Zombie Apocalypse which will usher in a return to openly hostile paganism. We’ve seen in recent months that the church in China is facing the Zombie variety, which is more openly hostile, but whatever is coming in the West it won’t be as comfortable for us as we’ve had it one way or the other. Fearful antagonism or false allure are our alternatives.
And our risk is that in this era of identity politics, we will spurn the opportunity to identify with the Risen King and his people. In this time of gender agenda, our own agenda will become shrivelled, small and safe. We risk falling for the false allure of a comfortable life – comfortable if we just keep quiet and make no ripples, and hand over the public square to its “rightful” owners.
The temptation will be to attend to our superannuation, create our nest egg, bunker down and hold our patch, rather than, as God’s people, put time into building an alternate community that by its very existence and vitality, speaks a prophetic word to the powers of this age.
And that was exactly the challenge in Haggai’s time. The book, just two short chapters, begins by framing the times culturally.
It is post-exile for many Jews and it is the time of King Darius. Chapter one bookends with the statement that Darius the Median is king. The reference point of a Jewish king on the throne has gone. The winds of change have swept him away. The social imaginary is no longer on the side of the Jews and their covenant God, but on the side of the Medes and their idols.
So much has changed. So much has fallen by the wayside. And the project to rebuild the temple has also fallen by the wayside for two decades. Not because it’s been forgotten, but because the people don’t feel “its the right time”:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins? (Hagg1:2-4)
Now notice, that it’s not that “these people” don’t have the time to attend to the things of God. They just don’t make the time to attend to the things of God. They’ve got all the time in the world to make themselves comfortable in a difficult situation. They’re into real-politik after all. Things will change – at some stage – and “the time” will be right for rebuilding the temple, we’re sure of it.
But right now? Not the right time. They know that to put that time into rebuilding the temple will make life very uncomfortable with the nations surrounding them, all of whom have a vested interest in God’s people never so identifying again. And that’s just too risky a chance to take. Why create trouble for ourselves?
I’ve heard this passage used to justify a church building program. What rot! This is a command for God’s people to honour God in the midst of troubling times by choosing to identify with God and his people and his glory when it is most costly to do so. And that is increasingly the challenge facing us today.
I work with many Millennial Christians and they are being challenged an increasingly hostile workplace, one in which they will be called to align themselves with forces and desires that are not merely not Christian, but are explicitly anti-Christian. Many careers we have taken for granted will no longer be open to them, indeed some are finding that already.
And what’s the temptation they face? To cave in. To allow the Sexular Culture sway; to permit the lure of wealth and ease to silence their identity with the rejections that the faithful people of God will increasingly face. Not necessarily panelled houses, but maybe that funky urban condo they’ve always wanted.
In other words to say “It’s not the time to strongly identify with the reproach of Christ. We’ve got to be smart about this.” Yet learn from Haggai. Either we give the time to glorifying God OR we give the time to glorifying ourselves. Everyone in Israel is busy; busy on their own stuff, and not on God’s stuff.
Now I said “Millennials”, but sadly, in my experience, it’s the older crowd who are leading the way in either silencing themselves or in caving in and signing up to the new Sexular Culture.
Oh the collective groan I hear when yet another well-known Christian leader who can’t stand the thought of being culturally ostracised saying “I was wrong” on the sexuality issue!
What time is it now? It’s time for older Christian leaders to take a hit for the younger team on this, and blow the consequences. A significant number of younger people have who have thanked me privately for taking stance on this stuff publicly, because they’ve lost friends or are fearful of doing so if they hold a different opinion on the sexual stuff swamping our culture.
The younger crowd is self-censoring through fear of being dumped on. Perhaps it’s time for the older crowd to stand alongside their younger brothers and sisters more fearlessly.
So where is God in all of this in Haggai, when his people are being unfaithful through their inaction? God is still plugging away being faithful. Here’s the proof that gives us great comfort, though at first it seems cold comfort:
Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. (Hagg1:5-6)
And just in case Israel was unsure why things were going this bad, God reveals that He is source of all that trouble!:
You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. (Hagg1:9)
Incredibly, God’s the one working against their plans to make life as comfortable as possible, and in keeping busy in doing so. Yet incredibly this is their exact comfort!
Why? Because it’s proof that in the midst of all that cultural and social and religious change, God had not changed! God was still the covenant keeping God who would carry out his covenant blessings and cursings according to what He had said back in the Pentateuch.
Have a read of Deuteronomy. Israel in Haggai’s time is experiencing exactly what God said His people would experience for disobedience way back then.
Way back before they ever got into the land in the first place. Way back before they had even dreamed up a temple. Darius might be the earthly king over Israel, but in all that seismic change, God has not ceased to be their true King. He is faithful and unchangeable even when they are faithless and contrary!
Once again this passage has been used badly. It’s been used to say that God will curse us with poverty if we do not obey, or, conversely, will shower us with physical stuff if we do obey. It’s a surefire passage that prosperity gospel preachers go to.
But that’s not what’s going on. This side of the cross and resurrection, this passage is telling us that God remains faithful to His promises, even if His people do not. An equivalent New Testament passage would be 2 Timothy 2:11-13, where tough times are also being experienced; and where God’s servant (though not God’s Word) is in chains:
11 The saying is trustworthy, for:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
In other words, keep going in the midst of trying times. Keep identifying with the shame of the gospel, as Paul reminds Timothy in his letter (cf 1:8, 16). To his dismay, Paul found that his “friends” disappeared like mist on a sunny morning in the face of public scorn and ridicule.
In a time of great stress for the gospel Paul found that the much vaunted New Testament church, – the one all the funky church planting books say was the model church before it all went wrong around Constantine – behaved exactly like the 21st century church behaved.
And it behaved, for that matter, like the Old Testament people of God in Haggai’s time behaved. When trouble or pressure arrived, God’s people are always tempted to cave in and refuse the scorn of the Christ, in order to fit in with whatever beast is on the earthly throne at the time. It’s a fact.
But here’s another fact. And it’s our great hope. Look what happens at the end of chapter one:
And they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king. (Hagg1:14-15)
No work on the temple for decades, then suddenly BOOM! Work commenced! God’s people decided to put their efforts into glorifying God not themselves. Israel decided to identify as an alternate nation, a people who belonged to God, a light to the world. How did they do that? Was it sheer will power?
It was not. It was sheer God power:
… the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.
Only the Spirit of God can make the people of God do the work of God. That’s grace. That’s the gospel. God transforms his people and they identity with “their God” to the point that the trouble for so doing will seem worth it!
We cannot – we will not – by sheer force of our will, get through these hard secular times that have polarised our culture, soured our politics, and put Christians on notice that their allegiance to the state’s agenda (Left or Right) is what is required. We cannot do it.
But we can pray that God by His Spirit will so transform our hearts that together we will be emboldened to live distinct lives; lives that reject the lure and allure of the Beautiful Apocalypse (if we sign up to the rainbow and glitter), or the fear and trauma of the Zombie Apocalypse, and its harsh post-grace edge.
And then we can get on with glorifying God by putting our energy into identifying with the people of God, and the shame it will increasingly bring, knowing that the Chief Cornerstone of that temple has blazed a trail before us in the face of suffering and persecution and temptation to shift his gaze towards the allures of this age.
Haggai 1 is a call to arms for God’s people. Not a call to cultural, political or actual arms. But a call to fight the good fight, as Paul himself said, in his own troublesome times:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2Tim 4:7-8)
As we go into 2019, whatever trouble that brings, whatever temptations it offers us in exchange for our silence, or our acquiescence, let’s remember Haggai, let’s remember Paul, and above all let’s remember our Lord Jesus who despised the shame and received glory from where it truly mattered.